The ladies who (prepare and serve) lunch

shen skano tesago cafeteria lunch line

By Casey Normile

On Fridays at Shenendahowa's Skano and Tesago elementary schools, the kids know what they want for lunch. The menu includes chef salad and fish nuggets, but those mostly go untouched. Because it's not just any Friday -- it's Pizza Friday.

The tiny students run in to the cafeteria, excited and hungry, lining up by class. Finally, when they're up, they turn shy and quietly tell the energetic lunch lady, Libby: "Pizza, please."

Principals and teachers get a lot of the attention when we talk about schools, and rightfully so. Lunch ladies? Even with a job that involves making sure hundreds of kids are fed, they don't come up in the conversation as often. Maybe it's the old "lunch lady" stereotype: a cartoonish character with a hairnet, a snarl on her face, and a ladle full of cole slaw.

But that image doesn't do the ladies at Shenendehowa's elementary schools any justice.

shen_lunch_ladies_cash_register.jpg

Technically the title of the people who work in the cafeteria is "food service worker," but most of the kids will introduce them as their "lunch lady."

Most of them are moms with kids in the district, and so they know how to deal with their little customers. The women are friendly, energetic, they even wear tie-dye shirts -- and they take their job seriously. They make the students take their fruits and veggies, they remind them that they can't have snacks if they're parents wont allow it, and they try to make sure the kids are eating enough each day. It's like preparing a meal for your family -- of 600 kids. And that includes doing the dishes afterward.

"We want to make sure the kids eat lunch and you want them to enjoy it," says Linda Lee, the cook manager for Skano and Tesago.

shen_lunch_ladies_tesago_skano_cafeteria.jpg

A single kitchen connects the two schools, and Linda's in charge of the whole operation. So she and the head chef, Theresa Hansen, come in at 8 am and prep everything they'll need for the day. Then, at 10:30 am, the other lunch ladies come in, snap on some gloves, a visor (note: not a hair net), and get to work. They serve both breakfast and lunch to 400-600 kids a day and yet they still know their names, appetites, favorite dishes, allergies... and how much they don't like meatloaf.

shen_lunch_ladies_student_posters.jpg
Student-made posters line the wall of the cafeteria, explaining what the kids have learned about nutrition. One reads: "Wanted, Vitamin C. The super citrus. Reward: You don't get peripheral vesicular disease and you don't get your blood vessels broken."

The job is evolving. A big part of it now is a focus on healthier food and new government guidelines for school lunches. That means serving up food with a helping of persuasion. Some kids may not like broccoli or asparagus to go along with their pizza, but they still have to leave the line with a fruit or vegetable, like baby carrots, cherry tomatoes, pineapple, or a V8.

shen_lunch_ladies_fruit_veggie_options.jpg

The federal regulations don't stop there. Each week the school menu is required to include:
+ More leafy greens and orange vegetables
+ Only whole grain bread and pasta
+ Fruit and dairy (but only low-fat or fat-free)
+ Low sodium recipes

The stricter guidelines haven't gone over well at some schools. The Niskayuna school district decided earlier this year to opt out of the program after officials said there was an "outcry" from students and parents, along with fewer kids buying lunch and more (healthy) food ending up in the trash.

shen_lunch_ladies_serving_students.jpg

The challenge then is to follow the guidelines and still make something the kids will actually eat. At the Skano/Tesago cafeteria, that's prompted Linda to find some unexpected crowd favorites: mashed cauliflower, black bean salsa, even pickled beets.

"I think most of the parents appreciate the program," says Linda, "but most are unaware that we are self-supporting and the government guidelines we need to follow. I don't know if many think about how much work, time, and nutritional knowledge goes into what we do everyday."

The school is also trying to educate the students about nutrition. Linda goes into classrooms one day a week and talks about balanced diets.

"I ask them, 'What's the first thing the lunch lady says to you when you get to the register?' and they say 'You have to take a fruit and a veggie.'"

They know the drill.

shen_lunch_ladies_student_chef.jpg

As part of the nutrition lesson, fifth graders also get to design their own menu based on what they've learned. Linda then chooses one and that student's menu is offered in the cafeteria for one day. It's called the "Guest Chef Program" -- and yes, the kids even get a chef hat.

You can see how much the lunch ladies love the kids. And as long as they're not serving something too strange, the kids love them right back. Even if we don't think about the lunch ladies too often, they're sort of like celebrities to the kids.

"Oh, I'm famous when I go out," says lunch lady Wendy, "They love us. I'll be at the store and one of the students will see me and just start waving. They're parents are a little nervous until their kids says, 'Oh, it's the lunch lady!' Then I'll have to introduce myself."

Comments

I went to Skano in the early '90s (~20 years, wow) and according to those pictures the lunch area looks identical to how it did back then, right down to the not-very-enjoyable SUNCUP juices.

"Even if we don't think about the lunch ladies too often, they're sort of like celebrities to the kids."
So true. I remember the lunch ladies from my elementary school more than I remember my teachers. And really, it wasn't until I started studying nutrition in grad school that I realized how challenging their jobs really are! Hats off to everyone who does this as a career! Great article!

This is terrific. My elementary school would occasionally let kids help serve lunches to other grades during the winter months (this was in Minneapolis, so missing outdoor recess in January was a huge treat). It taught us that lunch ladies don't have the easiest or most appreciated job, but they play such an important role at a school. It's nice to see them get some attention for what they do. Thanks for writing this!

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